Happy Graduation Day!

graduationContinued from here.

Today, my last two classes end, and I have earned my Master of Arts in Christian Ministry. Hooray!

I have spent the week reflecting on various aspects of my journey over the past year, but today I would like to focus not on what has happened but rather on who I have become … or, more precisely, who I am becoming.

I have changed over the past year, and it’s difficult to pinpoint which changes have resulted from which factors because all of them have shaped me: divinity school, professional ministry, prison ministry, the sacrifices, and the grace. I have developed a deeper, richer relationship with God. I have learned through experience that I cannot possibly anticipate where God is leading me and that, even when the journey is painful, it’s always worth it. God is bigger than anything I will ever face, and I can trust Him to work even the most painful and difficult experiences for good.

I have learned that God can bring us joy amidst difficult, stressful, and painful circumstances. I have a deeper appreciation of His faithfulness and goodness. I truly believe in the marrow of my bones that I can trust God – that His plan is better than any I could come up with for myself. If you had told me 18 months ago that I would be graduating with a divinity degree, working in professional ministry, or involved in prison ministry, I would have laughed you out of the room. Only God could make such sweeping changes in my life – all in directions I would never have chosen for myself – and make them good.

I have also learned the importance of radical obedience. When God leads you on a path you would never choose for yourself, you need to cling to His leading even more because you are going to have a difficult time finding your ways through the maze on your own. I had to be willing to say, “I love you more” than many areas of my life: more than a higher-paying job … more than avoiding the humiliation of being fired … more than choosing my own path.

To make time for all God called me to do over the past year, I had to say “no” to many things I wanted to say “yes” to, such as fun times with friends, attending concerts, travel, and even simply reading a book for pleasure. I feel somewhat disconnected from some relationships because I simply did not have time over the past year to invest in them. I had to choose between what I wanted and what God called me to do, and I chose God’s plan. I have no regrets. While I never would have chosen where my life is right now, I am immensely blessed by where God has led me.

As I say goodbye to school, I say yes to wherever else God is leading. This is not the end … it’s the beginning of the next chapter of this crazy journey as I radically follow God, no matter the cost.

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace in her graduation gown, smiling and throwing her graduation cap. Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

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Reflections about School

booksContinued from here.

Going to school full-time at a university with a different perspective than my own has been an interesting experience. At my interview for my current job, one of the interviewers was a pastor who attended a seminary for a different denomination than where he now serves. He told me in my interview that it was a blessing to attend a school with a different perspective than his own because it helped him solidify his own beliefs. That turned out to be the case for me as well.

I selected this school for two reasons: (1) It has a reputation for having a strong online program, and I could only attend seminary online in this season of life; and (2) I sensed the Holy Spirit guiding me there. If I knew then what I know now, I doubt I would have selected this school because I definitely do not “fit the mold” of the belief system of this school. However, if I could go back in time and change this experience, I wouldn’t because I have learned so much. While I certainly do not see eye-to-eye on every aspect of the Christian faith as this denomination, I have developed a strong appreciation for the sincerity of their beliefs as well as a deeper understanding of why they believe as they do.

The classes that were specific to my focus on discipleship were excellent, and I learned much that I plan to apply both in my local church and in my professional ministry. I also learned many tools about digging deeper into the context and history of when specific passages of scripture were written to help illuminate the meaning behind the text. I knew next to nothing about the history of the Christian faith after biblical times when I enrolled in divinity school. I now have a much deeper knowledge and appreciation for the factors that shaped the Christian faith into what it is today. I also have a deeper understanding of the differences between the various denominations, which has led me to a deeper appreciation of the elements they share. I also learned much that the school did not intend to teach me. I am grateful for both.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace holding a large pile of books. Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Reflections about the Grace

godspeedContinued from here.

While I have paid heavy costs over the past year for following God, His grace has abounded. The day after I was fired, I learned that I was inheriting a sum that came to exactly one year of net pay plus 10% for the tithe. I called this my divine severance package.

I was only unemployed for two months, and I had my initial interview the next business day after being fired. I had never interviewed for a ministry position before and did not know what to expect, but God guided me through the process. I wasn’t sure how to address questions about my former employer, but those questions never arose. My current employer is aware of my having been fired from my previous position and does not appear to care at all. When looking for grace, one cannot find someone with more grace in their hearts than people who invest their time in extending grace to those in prison.

I have never enjoyed a position as much as I do leading this prison ministry. Most of my professional experience has been in Corporate America, where I was trying to make rich people richer. As the executive director for a statewide Christian prison ministry, my focus is leading others – volunteers and inmates alike – to God. I have the blessing of working with people who love God and others – and particularly inmates. We spur one another on toward growing in our faith. We open our meetings with prayers and devotions. I cannot put into words the blessing of spending my days at work glorifying God and accomplishing His purposes.

One aspect of professional ministry I did not anticipate is the level of spiritual warfare I would have to deal with. Pray daily for everyone you know in professional ministry because you have no idea what they go through on a daily basis. Tasks that were easy for decades in Corporate America suddenly became onerous, not because I suddenly “forgot” how to do them but because the enemy had no reason to interfere with me making rich people richer. God’s grace even covers this dynamic because every day, I must lean on Him and trust Him to move the ongoing stream of barriers that arise so frequently that it’s almost comical.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace smiling by the word, “Godspeed.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Reflections on the Sacrifices

struggle_is_realContinued from here.

While my last blog entry connected the dots of the ways God clearly led me to where I now serve in professional ministry, this journey came with cost and sacrifice. I was searching for professional ministry positions (in obedience to God) while working full-time in a position where I had excelled for several years. I had worked for this company in Corporate America for over 8.5 years, and this was where my family got its health insurance. This was my longest place of employment on my resume.

To make a very long story short, this company fired me in August 2017 for refusing to engage in activity that I believe is both unethical and illegal. My family lost my income, health insurance, and other corporate benefits. In addition, I incurred a “black mark” on my resume – I will never again be able to truthfully answer “No” when asked if I have ever been fired from a job. I didn’t have to be fired: I could have simply gone along with what management wanted and participated in the unethical & illegal behavior. But I could not participate in fraud, and I paid the price for standing up for what is right.

God brought me to my current position exactly two months after the firing, and I thoroughly enjoy what I do now. However, this also came with a cost. My hourly rate is literally half what I was making at my Corporate America job, and this job comes with no benefits. Losing my prior position and following God to where I am now came at a heavy cost when you add up the lost income, lost benefits, and lost professional reputation.

If not for trusting God throughout the past year, my professional life would look like a train wreck. I’m pushing 50, which is not the ideal time to make a career change or be cavalier about getting fired by my employer of over 8.5 years. It makes no sense to earn a new degree – and one in ministry, of all things – at this stage in my life. Why invest thousands of dollars toward a degree for a career that pays much less than the careers that my law degree can provide? Following God over the past year has been costly.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace frowning by the words, “The Struggle is Real.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Reflections on the Past Year

new_year_new_meOn Friday, I will complete my Master of Arts in Christian Ministry with a focus on Discipleship and Church Ministry. Not only will I complete the degree, but I am on pace for graduating summa cum laude, which is icing on the cake. That was never my goal – I simply wanted to obey God by earning the degree. To end well rather than simply end is quite the treat!

For those of you who are newer to the blog, let me provide a short synopsis from the past year … In Winter 2017, my pastor gave a sermon about the power of forgiveness and grace extended to inmates. For most of my life, my heart was hardened toward inmates because I saw them as “guilty.” While I acknowledged that the Body of Christ is charged with ministering to them, I did not see this as my personal role. However, that sermon resonated deeply with me, and for weeks, I teared up every time I thought about it. I told God I was willing to minister to those in prison if He would show me the way.

In Spring 2017, God called me into professional ministry. I had no idea in what capacity, only that I needed to enroll in divinity school with a discipleship focus. I started my coursework for my degree in July 2017. Until this calling, I said numerous times that I would never go into professional ministry, nor would I return to any form of school (I already had a law degree), much less seminary.

I began looking for professional ministry positions, but I really did not want to work in a church. I figured God would guide me where He wanted me, and He did. Among the job postings listed for the United Methodist Church, I saw an opening for an executive director of a statewide prison ministry and was intrigued. As I explored the website and learned more about this particular ministry, I knew in my spirit that God was leading me there. Even though I wasn’t sure I had the qualifications, I applied and was hired in October 2017.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace with her hand on her heart by the words, “New year. New me.” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Believing God will Work this Pain for Good

amazingContinued from here.

No matter what you are going through in your life … no matter how painful it is … no matter how broken you are … God is BIGGER! I know this because I have seen what He can do. The same God who was able to heal me from the suicidal urges, self-injury, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, insomnia, and nightmares is the same God who is able to heal you. I had a mental health professional tell me that I needed to be realistic about my goals for therapy, and a book written by someone who endured a similar level of child abuse and brokenness advised me to accept my limitations: to become comfortable in an emotional wheelchair. However, God had other plans! God has no limits. If He can heal me from an “incurable” mental health disorder, then He can heal you as well.

While I have my moments (as everyone does), I am generally not an anxious person anymore. I experience much joy and peace in my life. I am no longer anger or bitter toward anyone. I am generally patient with other people. I feel excited, passionate, and even grateful for my life. My history has not changed, but my perspective has. While I would never wish child abuse on anyone, I am grateful for mine – not because the child abuse was good but because God is good. The backdrop of the child abuse has helped me see God’s amazing love and power in ways that most people don’t experience to the degree that I have, simply because few people have been broken to the degree that I was.

If you haven’t been deeply broken, thank God for sparing you the pain. If you have, hear me as someone who has been in a similar place: God is bigger. If God can healed my shattered heart, then He can heal yours. If God can lead me to a place of gratitude where I once felt nothing but bitterness, He can do the same for you. There is NOTHING so big that it overshadows God – He is simply that amazing!

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace with her hand on her head and mouth agape under the word, “Amazing!” Courtesy Bitmoji.]

 

Greater Dependence upon God

ice_creamContinued from here.

One of the challenges of being human is the deep-seated desire for independence and control. The reality is that we don’t control a thing – even the air that we breathe is provided by God in His goodness. The sooner we learn dependence upon God, the sooner we get to experience the many blessings that come from staying connected to the Vine.

The child abuse warped my brain to such a degree that I am incapable of making a healthy decision apart from God. During the decades I tried making my own decisions and living by what I saw as “right,” I repeatedly walked myself into one emotional pit after another. I used to be so angry about this because I blamed the child abuse for this: “if only I had not been abused, then X would not be happening.”

Once I accepted the reality that I do not have even one emotionally healthy bone in my body, I stopped making decisions based upon what looked “right” to me and, instead, depended upon God to show me the right way. Since I have been doing that, so much in my life has turned around for the better. It has become a habit to pray for God’s wisdom and discernment, even in the little things that shouldn’t be a big deal to do on my own. I have no illusions about my ability to make good decisions. Either I depend fully on God to guide me, or I know I’ll find myself in another emotional pit.

This was a painful lesson to learn, but considering that the goal for every Christian is to learn to connect the Vine and depend upon God to lead us through life, the child abuse has actually been a blessing. If I could get by even half the time on my own strength, I would be much less likely to connect with God and seek His wisdom in making decisions. Because of the child abuse, whether or not to seek God’s wisdom is very “black and white” for me: either I follow God’s leading, or I will find myself in another emotional pit. There’s no gray in this area of life for me, which has empowered me to walk more faithfully with God.

To be continued…

[Graphic: Cartoon of Grace’s head inside a scoop of ice cream that has fallen off the cone. Courtesy Bitmoji.]